I know exactly how a suicide was broadcast live on Fox News. I have been in the anchor chair and provided play-by-play for dozens of live car chases broadcast from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to rural Montana. The location is not what matters, it is the built-in live suspense.
Car chases are ratings crack to TV news.
That’s why you will see any car chase from anywhere in the country if it happens live during a local newscast. It matters not that there is little or no news value. The pressure is on the news producers to choose ratings and revenue over responsibility.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police reports the vast majority of car chases begin with “traffic-related or minor infractions.” But, like location, the crime is irrelevant to the coverage. Car chases trump all other content because it is live and comes with the inherent possibility that something grisly, something dramatic will happen.
On Friday something grisly, something dramatic did happen, live on Fox News. A carjacker, with police and a local news helicopter in hot pursuit, pulled the stolen sedan off the road in Tonopah, Arizona. He then got out of the car and shot himself in the head.
Fox News anchor Shepherd Smith was anchoring the coverage. Smith is a fan of covering high-speed police pursuits. “I love car chases,” he admitted during an interview last year. “We all need a break, and with the knowledge that this person’s going to jail and the hope that nobody gets hurt, I don’t know. It’s fun.”
Friday took all the fun out of future car chases for Smith. In a panic, he pleaded with the control room to “Get off of it. Get off of it.” And then it happened.
Smith immediately apologized for everyone at Fox News, admitting “We messed up.”
Truthfully, TV news messes up almost every time it takes a car chase live. They do it for a myriad of reasons and not one of them is acceptable. Some local low-speed pursuits are covered simply to justify the cost of the helicopter lease.
Let me make a few suggestions for future car chase coverage.
• Do not go live until you have the facts. What started the pursuit? Who is the person behind the wheel? Where is it? The standard rules of news coverage should apply. O.J. trying to escape murder charges is news. A stolen car in Nebraska is not.
• After all of the facts are exhausted and the coverage has devolved to a morbid play-by-play, it is time to move on.
• Always have at least a five-second delay on the video and a manager in the control room to make the call. Fox News did have a delay, but no manager in the control room. Without the delay and a manager, you don’t go live.
• There is very little suspense lost in taping part of the car chase and airing it seconds later with the anchor promise that “we’ll let you know how this works out.”
• In doubt, don’t go live.
Friday’s incident was not the first time TV news aired a live death by accident, but it should be the last.
In 1998, a Los Angeles station showed a man taking his own life. In 1999, a San Diego station showed a suspect dying in a police shootout. After those incidents, TV news stations promised to widen out their helicopter shots and implement a delay system, like the one that failed on Friday.
It is time to do some more rethinking. Or maybe pre-thinking is the right word. Think before going live for the thrill of it.